Unlocking Twitter

TL;DR: Make Twitter’s vast content more accessible by reframing its mobile app with 4 monetizable, content-centric tabs and an easy way to curate your interests.

🔥 Full interactive prototype: https://marvelapp.com/c5g66cb

Twitter’s already 13 years old; amazing how the timeline flies. As with all teenagers, it’s entered a tricky, formative (annoying?) phase. Its 330 million MAUs is nothing to sneeze at but modest compared to other social media behemoths. Now, with growth metrics plateauing, it’s clear that something bigger has to change with the product to recharge growth. What’s holding it back? And what’s next? How can teenage Twitter transition to a bigger future?

Core product issues

Twitter currently has some core product issues that are dragging on user engagement, acquisition, and monetization:¹

  1. Onboarding is too onerous with an account-centric paradigm.
  2. Best content for you is too difficult to find.
  3. Video and live-stream content from premium partners is too buried in the mobile apps.
  4. Half of the main tabs in Twitter’s mobile apps aren’t easily monetizable.

While I don’t have access to any of Twitter’s internal usage data, I perceive these core product issues based on my long-time use of Twitter and learnings from other social media and news apps including Instagram, Prismatic, Zite, Pulse, Feedly, Nuzzel (my fave), and Apple News.

“Unlocking Twitter” mobile app concept

To address these core product issues and accelerate growth of mDAUs, revenue, and profit, I propose a new Twitter mobile app concept built around 3 product aspirations:

1) Surface relevant content.

2) Unleash the interest graph.

3) Embrace video.

All 3 of these aspirations are about making the best Twitter content more prominent and accessible —unlocking Twitter’s treasure trove of content for the masses. This concept aims to get closer to what I call the “Golden Cycle of Content Consumption,” giving you not 1–2 places to consume Twitter’s main content as in the current mobile app, but 4 prominent tabs that you can cycle between to keep consuming fresh content.² Each of these tabs is conceptually very different and cognitively distinct:

Content Tab 1 — Home: contains 2 subtabs: a new personalized, algorithmic highlights view, and a personal #interest management/individual #interest content drill-down view

Content Tab 2 — Timeline: keep this sacred cow of a format but move to the second tab

Content Tab 3 — Trending: a full tab for trends vs. mixing it up with search and suggested content like in the current mobile Explore

Content Tab 4 — Twitter Live: unburies the premium video content and puts in a separate, monetizable tab

Twitter already possesses all of the great content needed for all 4 of these content tabs; things just need to be rejiggered. And fortunately, accommodating a change to 4 main content tabs would require only minimal additional UI changes, specifically:

  • Change to a standard 5 tab design (as used currently in Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.) to allow 4 content tabs + a 5th Notifications tab.
  • Move the DM icon to the top.
  • Persist a search icon in the top right of EVERY main screen so it’s always one tap away.
“Unlocking Twitter” concept. https://marvelapp.com/c5g66cb

Here’s a full interactive prototype https://marvelapp.com/c5g66cb (best viewed on iPhone X/XS in the Marvel app)

Below is more on the thinking behind the “Unlocking Twitter” concept and screen-by-screen concept details.

Moving beyond the account following model

Up until now, the underlying paradigm powering Twitter’s growth has been the public follow/following account model, a true innovation back in the day. But now that several user growth metrics have plateaued, it’s becoming clear that this model is causing some friction and product issues that need to be tackled.

Currently with Twitter’s account-centric model, a new user is required to follow accounts to fill their Timeline with content. The onboarding flow first asks you to select Interests. Then once you’ve selected some, it suggests accounts to follow based on your interests. Then you’re expected to follow some of these.

Part of the current onboarding flow (Android app)

First, this is a lot of setup friction standing in the way of demonstrating any value to a new user. But because the Timeline is the main view of Twitter and it’ll be empty unless you follow some accounts, it’s currently a necessary flow. If you don’t follow any accounts, you’ll sadly see an empty Timeline (shown above in the right screenshot). Tapping the ‘Let’s go’ button on that screen takes you to Explore and shows you content completely unrelated to any interests you manually specified. A bad first experience.

Second, following accounts introduces too much cognitive overhead into onboarding. In the screenshots above, the user selected the interest “Ocean” but the suggested accounts to follow don’t closely match the interest. Most interests don’t map to accounts 1:1, they are approximations. And even if an account Tweets about an interest most of the time, it might also Tweet about other topics you don’t find interesting.³

Third, even if you follow some accounts, the Timeline is a confusing, unfocused format to consume, especially for new users. It’s topically scattershot, has all kinds of UI elements outside of the content, and doesn’t show you the most interesting, relevant content personalized to your interests that with high probability lies outside of the few accounts you’ve followed. Tweaking this is an enormous opportunity to improve the consumption experience and hence mDAUs.

Home: ‘For you’ subtab

To address the above issues, I propose an idea similar to that suggested by MG Siegler in his very interesting critique of Twitter Explore back when it launched in 2017: have 2 separate feeds, a highlight feed and a Timeline feed.⁴ Call this new highlight feed ‘For you’ and put it in the highest-profile leftmost tab under the Home tab with the intention of this being the first thing the majority of people check when they launch Twitter. A “top new stuff that I’m actually interested in” view, one that if you had 5 min you could jump into and quickly read the most interesting content, multiple times a day. This is a classic variable-rate reinforcement schedule that keeps you coming back. It would cleanly align with the strategic goal stated by Jack of “[…]provid[ing] something valuable to people on Twitter every day” and could greatly boost mDAUs. It would become the centerpiece of the Twitter experience as it fulfills the ultimate promise of Twitter: a quick way to see the top stories in topics you care about and then an easy way to dive into the public conversation around them. And it lends itself extremely well to monetization units.

For you: personalized, algorithmic highlights

How would it work? ‘For you’ would be an algorithmic highlights tab, completely personalized based on the top stories related to your interests happening across the Twitterverse. It would be informed by manually selected interests in the onboarding flow and interests selected in a new #Interests screen (more on that below). Also, for existing users who’ve spent a lot of energy curating the accounts they follow (like me), ‘For me’ could show the top stories that accounts you follow are tweeting about (like a Nuzzel on steroids).

Also importantly, especially for new users, in ‘For you’, use a content format similar to Stories (like those shown on the current Explore tab), not Tweets. Stories are streamlined, simpler, and reduce UI cognitive overhead. Then the public conversation around each Story would live neatly on each Story screen. Also include a tappable #interest next to each item that links to an Interest screen with more content around that topic. Explicitly infusing the #interest paradigm throughout the Twitter experience helps to feed people contextual clues to keep them from getting lost in Twitter’s potentially overwhelming sea of content.

With ‘For you’ in place, instead of prompting new users to follow accounts in the onboarding flow, it’s possible to just prompt them to follow interests so that in the first session, ‘For you’ will be populated with content that’s interesting. Similar to the approach Apple has taken with their News app.

Home: #Interests subtab

To power ‘For you’, Twitter needs to know a user’s interests. Not just by allowing new users to select them manually in onboarding, but also by allowing existing users to manage their list of interests.

Propose a new #Interests screen that harnesses the idea of hashtags (a perfect proxy for an Interest!). Envisioning something quite simple: basically a screen that lets you manage your interests and also provides a launching pad to easily dig deeper into content related to any of them.

#Interests: manage your interests and tap one to see content related to an interest

Each of your interests must be manually selected. You could add an interest in a few ways: 1) by adding it directly from the Search suggestions; 2) by tapping an #interest anywhere in the app and then on its #interest screen, tapping the heart at the top; and 3) by tapping the heart next to an interest in the ‘Suggested #interests’ section. Suggested interests include inferred interests based on your Twitter activity. Swiping left on a suggested interest would skip it (consider adding a more obvious UI element to skip an interest).

Once the user has selected some interests, a single tap of that interest would take you to its Interest screen. For now, this could be the screens that you see when you follow a hashtag. In the future, these could be redesigned to be more like the proposed ‘For you’ screen Stories content format.

Example #Interest screen; the content could be redesigned in line with Stories format

I‘m really excited about this direction, it has huge potential to unlock so much relevant content and make Twitter so much more accessible to the masses. Twitter’s product lead Kayvon Beykpour seems excited about this too. When asked by Kara Swisher in a June 2019 Recode interview about the most exciting product innovations planned for this year, Kayvon said:

[…] as an interest network, it’s sort of odd that Twitter does not expose interests and topics as primitives that you can follow, or that you can mute. […]That’s something that I think fundamentally has the opportunity of changing how people interact with the service for the better. Both in making it more relevant for you and also giving you control around not hearing the things that you don’t want to hear about. Sometimes I just want to watch the French Open and not have politics clutter my feed.

💯 I completely agree. This has always bugged me about Twitter. Specifically, a focus on quickly surfacing content tailored to a person’s interests could fundamentally transform the platform into one that’s instantly accessible and valuable to a far greater number of mDAUs. And amazingly, Twitter already has all of the necessary pieces to make this happen: a perfect proxy for an interest (the #hashtag, thanks to early Twitter user Chris Messina, the godfather of the hashtag™), inferred interests based on who you follow, ML-based hashtag grouping, and manual interest selection in onboarding. One additional thing Twitter could do to improve the mapping of hashtags to interests would be to enlist human volunteers aka “Tag Wranglers” to improve upon ML categorization efforts (used with great success by fan fiction site AO3).

Timeline

The Stream is a trusted, sacred cow of a format (currently found in Home). It provides an easy way for users to specifically see Tweets from the accounts they follow. Many long-time Twitter users have put a lot of effort into curating who they follow and after years are highly accustomed to consuming tweets in this stream format. For these reasons, propose not rocking the boat too much and simply moving it to the 2nd tab. Consider changing the current “algorithmic stream” to just a reverse chronological stream (like it used to be) since top highlights would now be surfaced in ‘For you’. This eliminates the need for a Timeline settings icon.

Same ole Timeline

Trending

Trending — aka what are the big things going on right now across the Twitterverse— moves into its own central tab. This gives it more room to grow from a content and monetization perspective. As shown in the concept, envision adding more granular ways to slice Trending by location (city, country, and world). Note that I envision personalized trends based on your interests would effectively be covered in the most prominent ‘For you’ tab because these basically would be the biggest, most interesting recent stories for you. One idea for a design flourish: use a 🔥 for the Trending tab icon and have it change color from Twitter blue #1DA1F2 to the complementary color #F26E1D when there are new hot trends to consume (in lieu of the small blue dot). Perhaps even use a subtle flame flickering animation, a delightful detail similar to the ‘like’ animation.

Trending

Twitter Live

Beyond the world of text and photos lies a new reality that younger generations are always plugged into: video. Be it with YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok, video is what younger people are flocking to on mobile. Next time you see teens on their phones, notice what they’re doing: it’s almost always consuming a never-ending chain of short videos. Really embracing premium video content could have a huge impact on Twitter engagement metrics.

Video also represents a huge growth opportunity for Twitter from a monetization perspective. Video formats have already accounted for over 50% of Twitter’s revenue for 6 straight quarters, yet surprisingly there’s not even a dedicated place in the app for premium partner video content. Envision a large jump in revenue if a new Twitter Live occupied one of the main tabs featuring a full roster of exclusive premium video content such as that announced at this year’s NewFronts. The content format in my concept screen here is really just a placeholder; imagine it could become something far more compelling and full-screen, perhaps similar to TikTok’s For You screen or IGTV’s screen.

Twitter Live. Video getting the (screen real estate) respect it deserves.

Why do I care about this?

As a user of Twitter since 2008, I’ve seen the ups and downs of the service, from the first “I’m putting on my socks” Tweets to the issues around conversation health today. I’ve witnessed its difficult iterations on identity and feel the currently stated purpose of “serving the public conversation around topics people care about”[3] finally seems to get at its core reason to exist. I believe Twitter fills an important need for public info and discourse and is net valuable for society.¹

But as a product guy who’s spent years working in consumer product & design, I can’t help but get excited about the potential huge product wins still untapped by Twitter. After all these years, there’s still a lot of opportunity left. It’s exciting to think about how to improve a product that I’m passionate about. Hopefully some of these ideas will help “move the public conversation forward” or better yet, eventually get built & tested in twttr⁵. Thanks for reading.

Cause I’m as free as a bird now

¹ While I do think improving conversational health is foundational to Twitter and should be a high priority, on-going effort, I don’t think improving it will have as big an impact on retention, engagement, and monetization as fixing these other product issues. No doubt it will have a positive impact as Sara Haider, head of twttr, says “Obviously with a better conversational experience, people will use [Twitter] more and they’ll get more value out of it, which is what we’re trying to aim for.” [via Buzzfeed News]

² My concept of the “Golden Cycle of Content Consumption” originated while working on Threadsy, which brought together your email, Facebook News Feed, and your Twitter Timeline into one web app. The idea is that when people are bored, they cycle through content platforms looking to read new stuff and keep reading until there’s nothing new. The Golden Cycle of Content Consumption occurs when by the time a person cycles through their content platforms of choice, there’s fresh new content of interest back in the first platforms. Like a hamster on a wheel, the great content consumption never ends.

³ I remember when Fred Wilson wrestled with this problem on his AVC blog. He liked to write about VC and his tastes in music; 99% of his audience cared about his VC posts and 1% (being generous here) cared about his music posts. After offering 2 separate RSS feeds (one for VC-related posts only, one for all posts) he eventually abandoned writing music posts altogether.

⁴ My proposed concept for a ‘For you’ view is similar to Siegler’s ‘Pulse’ idea but takes it a step further by explicitly driving off of your interest graph (and it also changes the content format from Tweets to a simpler to consume Stories format).

⁵ Would love an invite twttr team! I promise to give feedback.

Bird cage image by HeadsOfBirds from Noun Project. Interests tag cloud created using https://www.wordclouds.com

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Product / design of consumer web & mobile apps. Interests: consumer, social, maps, outdoors, AR, games.

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Scott Kendall

Scott Kendall

Product / design of consumer web & mobile apps. Interests: consumer, social, maps, outdoors, AR, games.

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